DHHAP Information and Technical Assistance Series
About the Profession
What does an interpreter do?
Sign Language/spoken English interpreters are highly skilled professionals. They
must be able to listen to another person's words, inflections and intent and simultaneously render them into the visual language of signs using the mode of communication preferred by the deaf consumer. The interpreter must also be able to comprehend the signs, inflections and intent of the deaf consumer and simultaneously speak them in articulate, appropriate English. They must understand the cultures in which they work and apply that knowledge to promote effective cross-cultural communications.
What is the job market for interpreters?
Sign language interpreting is a rapidly expanding field. Schools, government agencies, and private businesses employ interpreters. Interpreters work in a variety of settings including medical, legal, religious, mental health, rehabilitation, performing arts, and business. Part-time, full-time, freelance and salaried positions are available in most metropolitan areas across the country.
Is there much demand for interpreters?
There is a strong need for qualified interpreters with credentials. A majority of new interpreter training program graduates get jobs in the school systems, where they receive a full-time salary and benefits. Others work with interpreter referral agencies as freelance interpreters. This offers them flexibility in hours and job settings, but may not provide 40 hours per week in assignments. In general, the demand for interpreters is in medium-to-large cities. The more mobile you are, the more likely you are to find an interpreting job.
What is meant by "qualified" or "credentialed?"
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires the provision of qualified interpreters in a variety of settings. It states that "To satisfy this requirement, the interpreter must have the proven ability to effectively communicate..." One important measure of an interpreter's proven ability is professional credentials. Credentials are obtained by taking and passing an assessment of your skills. The National Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) provides testing for national certification. Assessments by the National Association for the Deaf (NAD) and other state agencies may also be accepted by employers.
Will an interpreter training program prepare me to get my credentials?
While you are not required to have a college degree in order to take an assessment, the background, skills development and theory learned in a recognized interpreter training program are extremely beneficial in getting your national certification. Upon completion of a good program, most graduates are able to pass the RID written exam. If you are active in the field and continue to upgrade your knowledge and skills, you should be able to pass the RID skills certification within three to five years.
What kind of salary can I expect to earn?
Salaries will vary depending on many factors. These include a) geographical area (rural areas tend to pay less than urban areas), b) education, c) amount of experience, and d) credentials. Some interpreters work freelance and earn anywhere from $12-$40/hour, but they may not be able to schedule a full forty hours per week. They do not get employee benefits. Other interpreters work for an agency, business, government organization or school system. Depending on many factors, these staff employees may earn anywhere between $15,000-$30,000+ per year. You may want to call interpreter referral agencies and school systems to get specific information about the area of interpreting that interests you.
About Sign Language
Is sign language universal?
It would be nice if that was the case, but sign language is no more universal than spoken languages. American Sign Language is the language used by a majority of people in the Deaf community in the United States and most of Canada (QSL is used in Quebec). Certain Caribbean countries and areas of Mexico also use ASL. England uses British sign Language and Australia uses Australian Sign Language.
What is the difference between ASL and English-type sign languages?
American Sign Language (ASL) is a distinct visual-gestural-kinesthetic language. While it borrows elements from spoken English and old French sign language, it has unique grammatical, lexical and linguistic features of its own. It is not English on the hands. Because ASL is not English, educators have developed a number of signed codes which use ASL vocabulary items, modify them to match English vocabulary, and put them together according to English grammatical rules. These codes have various names including Signed Exact English (SEE) and Manual Coded English (MCE). Additionally, when native speakers of English and native users of ASL try to communicate, the "language" that results is a mixture of both English and ASL vocabulary and grammar. This is referred to as PSE (Pidgin Signed English) or contact signing.
How long does it take to become fluent in ASL?
How long does it take to become fluent in Japanese? Russian? Language fluency, be it spoken or visual, requires time, study, immersion in the language community, and constant practice. After taking three classes, you may be able to handle communication of simple concepts of daily life. To be comfortably fluent in native conversations at normal rates discussing complex topics may take years.
Where can I take classes?
Sign language classes are offered throughout the community at schools and colleges, churches and recreation departments. Some of these are excellent, and some are very poor. The classes may be ASL, PSE, SEE or some mixture of all. Instructors may be experienced, professional educators, or people who have only taken a few classes themselves. Buyer beware!
Sign language instructors should have native or near-native fluency in ASL. (Remember that it takes years to become highly fluent in any foreign language.) Fluency in the language could be evidenced by RID certification or NAD or state Quality Assurance (QA) ratings in interpreting, or by an advanced or superior rating on the SCPI (Sign Communication Proficiency Interview). Be wary of instructors who just recently took classes themselves.
It is very beneficial if the instructors have formally studied the language and the teaching profession. They should be involved in the Deaf community and with professional organizations. Credentials to look for include membership in the American Sign Language Teachers Association (ASLTA) and/or the Conference of Interpreter Trainers (CIT) as well as organizations such as RID, NAD and Black Deaf Advocates (BDA).
Other considerations in choosing a class may include:
The organization offering the class
Do they have someone in charge of the classes who knows about sign language, Deaf people and education? What is the history and reputation of the organization in regards to sign language education? Resources: Can you get additional materials on sign language? Are you provided with information on what is happening in the Deaf community? After the basics, where do you go?
The Deaf community
People who are native ASL signers and involved in the Deaf community see "graduates" from various classes. Which classes do they recommend?
Graduates of the class
What have they accomplished since they finished their studies? Has the class been helpful? Do they feel they learned what they needed?
About Interpreter Training Programs
Where can I go to study interpreting?
There are college and university programs around the country. A majority offer associate degrees in interpreting, but the number of bachelor programs is growing. A handful of schools offer master degrees in interpreting. A list of programs is available from Waubonsee Community College for a nominal charge. Call 630-466-7900 ex. 2503. (See above for information on selecting classes or programs.)
Which degree option is best for me?
That depends. To be a successful interpreter, you need a wide range of general knowledge. A degree is an important way to gain that knowledge. The higher the degree, the more diverse and complete your general knowledge will be. In many interpreting jobs in school systems, your salary is partly based on your degree. Interpreting is a very complex task and requires a high degree of fluency in two languages. Will you be able to master the language and the interpreting task during the length of the program you are considering?
In general, the more education a person can get, the better they will do. But, the quality of the education is important as well. Is the program up to date and well respected by the Deaf and interpreting communities? Are its faculty members affiliated with and actively involved in professional organizations? What kind of credentials do they have? Are the program graduates working in the field and getting their credentials? What kinds of resources are available to students and faculty? Answers to these questions may help you choose the right program for you.
Will I be a certified interpreter when I finish the program?
NO! In this field, if someone is "certified" that means they have passed the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf written and performance tests. We want to stress that finishing a program does not guarantee that you will be able to get your certification. Most programs provide you with the knowledge and skills to begin pursuing an interpreting career. Completion of a program is more like a driver's permit that lets you operate in certain protected situations. Continued practice, participation in workshops and training experiences, and work with mentors will help prepare you to earn your certification.
For more information, contact your local RID and NAD affiliates, interpreter referral agencies, and sign language or interpreting programs.